4 Quick Tips for Short Story Editing

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As attention spans grow shorter, there is an increased demand for shorter stories. And when you're writing a very short story, editing is crucial.

4 Quick Tips for Short Story Editing

I've noticed recently a lot of writing contests and submissions calling for stories under 3000 words. Writing a story this short is different than writing a novel or even a 10,000-word story. We need to get into the story, make a connection with the reader, and then wrap it up without wasting any time. It can feel strange for those of us used to writing larger pieces.

Short Story Editing: 4 Quick Tricks

I've found part of the trick to keeping my stories tight and emotionally engaging is the editing. If I make good editing decisions, I find my stories have a far richer life for a reader. Here are four quick tricks I use when editing short stories.

1. Delete Your First Paragraph

When I'm writing a short story, I find it takes a paragraph to warm my brain up. Because it's what I need to do to get my writing rolling, I find my first paragraph is typically setting the scene or describing the scenario, which means the action of the story doesn't start until the second paragraph.

When you have less than 3000 words, you have to get right into the scene. You don't have time to fart around with introductory paragraphs.

When I edit a short story, I will scan the first paragraph and make note of any necessary information contained in it. Then I will delete it and work the necessary information into other paragraphs later in the story.

2. Remove as Much World Building as Possible

I love world building. It's one of my favorite things to do. Before I started my most recent urban fantasy series, I spent almost a year world building with my writing partner. And when it comes to writing, I love giving readers details of the world. I like dropping little factoids throughout the story.

Unfortunately, when you have less than 3000 words, you don't have time for world building. Although it breaks my heart, when I'm editing a story, I will delete all world building. I'll take it all out.

Then on my third read of the story, I'll put it back only if it is absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the scene.

3. Rebuild Scene Jumps

Another terrible habit I have is scene-jumping.

Sometimes you can see my scene jumping in the locations I'm using. My story might start in a doctor's office, and then it jumps to my protagonist's house, and then it leaps to my protagonist's office. Other times you can see it in my timeline. Three paragraphs into the story I'll have a phrase like, “three years later” or “in the next week” or “a decade later.”

If I'm scene-jumping, it means I need to break my story into multiple stories.

When we've got fewer than 3000 words, we need to get into the scene fast, introduce the conflict, escalate it, and bring resolution all while emotionally engaging the reader. Every time we skip around in time or change location, we break our readers' emotional flow.

When I'm writing a short story, I force myself to stay in one scene. This lets readers picture the moment of the story and stick with their mental image all the way to the end of the story.

4. Read It Out Loud to Someone Else

Typically, even people who don't read will listen to you read 3000 words. Whom you read the story to doesn't matter. Just grab the closest person and ask them to listen.

Outside of getting feedback from another human, reading a story aloud does two things for us:

First, it lets us hear what our characters sound like. I once read a story to my wife that I was extremely proud of. It wasn't until I heard it out loud that I realized I'd given one of my characters an accent halfway through the story.

Second, it gives us a better feel for the rhythm of the story. Short stories, like songs, have a beat to them. I'm not referring to a rhyme scheme. Rather, I'm talking about the emotional flow of the story. It needs to feel right to the reader. Often, I don't feel the emotional flow until I've read the story out loud to someone else.

Great Stories Happen in the Editing

No matter what your word count is, getting under it can be tough. Winning the word count game happens in the editing. Even if you don't have hours to spend editing your story until it's absolutely perfect, just a few quick adjustments can make a big difference.

Do you have other quick tricks for short story editing? Tell us in the comments.

PRACTICE

Today, it's all about the editing. Find a piece you've written before, maybe a short story languishing in a drawer or a practice you shared on another article. If you don't have something written already, take ten minutes to write a new story based on the following prompt: while on vacation, an assassin accidentally adopts a dog.

Then, take the next ten minutes to edit your story using the four tricks above. When you're done, share your story in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!

Jeff Elkins is a writer who lives Baltimore with his wife and five kids. If you enjoy his writing, he'd be honored if you would subscribe to his free monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive a free copy of Jeff's urban fantasy novella "The Window Washing Boy."

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14 Comments

  1. David H. Safford

    Mind-blowing, yet wonderfully practical advice, Jeff! Thank you for helping us keep our work focused so our readers can love and share it!

    Reply
    • Jeff Elkins

      Thanks David. I’m glad it is helpful.

      Reply
  2. Sujaya Nambiar

    Great advice

    Reply
  3. Julie Mayerson Brown

    Great tips Jeff! I love writing short stories and have found many contests and lit journals seeking short pieces. Editing is critical. I do think scene jumping can work if we ease the reader into it… not easy to do though.
    Best of luck to you!

    Reply
    • Jeff Elkins

      I’ve seen other authors pull off scene jumping. You’re right, it’s tough. I’m not capable. =)

      Reply
  4. Christine Denniss

    Thanks for this Jeff, I am writing a short story at present and I am struggling to keep my word count down. So I should just jump straight into the action and weave my backstory into the dialogue? I am going to try your suggestions and see what happens. Thanks again.

    Reply
    • Jeff Elkins

      I say go for it. Rarely do I read a short story and say, “Man, that started too quickly.”

      Reply
  5. Jason Bougger

    Interesting post. I had never really thought about scene-jumping and whether or not it can hurt a short story. Makes me want to look over a few of my older stories and see how many times I’ve done it.

    Reply
  6. Jeanne Frost

    Thank you Jeff for this valuable advice. I am going to pull out my stories gathering dust on the shelf and put these ideas to work.

    Reply
    • Jeff Elkins

      I did that recently and found a ton of stories I needed to break into two or three. Good luck!

      Reply
  7. Pamela Hodges

    Hi Jeff,
    I have a short story I am working on. Your suggestions are really helpful. Especially the one about scene jumping. It makes me think of the short story as one slice of cake, rather than the whole cake.

    Reply
    • Jeff Elkins

      I love the cake illustration. Let me know how it comes out!

      Reply
  8. John Grumps Hamshare

    As I recently started editing a set of stories from my beginning-author days, your advice is timely, informative, and welcome. Thank you.

    Reply

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